By Rory Mitchinson
Formed in August 1917, Blyth’s all-conquering women’s team – the Munitionettes – featuring prize asset Bella Reay, who scored an astonishing 133 goals in just one season, dominated the North East ladies game throughout the duration The Great War. Bella’s granddaughter, Yvonne Crawford, who featured prominently in the a BBC Look North piece on the team, shared her own memories of one of the club’s first truly great players.
As part of WW1 young women, who were left behind in Britain, were summoned to contribute to the war effort in any they could, mostly through “munitions work”, which for a group of ladies at the South Docks meant loading ships with fresh ammunition for the front, or unloading boxes of empty shell cases prior to recycling. From this setting some ladies began to embrace the beautiful game.
“They started kicking a ball around on Blyth Beach, and the local Navy crew began giving them training sessions”, said Yvonne. “They wanted to help the war effort. All of the games that they went on to play, were played for charity. All of the money they raised went towards helping the local soldiers who had been hurt in the war. They never got paid anything at all, but then, they didn’t want to be paid anything.”
And so, Blyth Spartans Ladies’ FC were formed. On August 4th, 1917, they took to the pitch at Croft Park to take on their mentors – the “Jack Tars” – in a game organised by Petty Officer Baker. As would be expected, the match was played in a certain spirit, with the men taking part with their hands tied behind their backs. The ladies ran out 7-2 winners, inspired by the exploits of a certain Bella Reay – a 17-year-old centre-forward who netted six of her side’s goals.
Within days the Spartans side faced another women’s team from the town, the Blyth United Munitions Ladies, and romped to a 10-1 victory – with Bella netting seven goals. Needless to say, United were not to feature in another ladies’ fixture.
The following week, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle announced that a knockout competition called the “Munitionettes’ Cup” had been organised for sides across the region, for which the Spartans ladies were among the first to sign up. The draw for the competition took place in Newcastle’s Bigg Market on September 26th – pitting Spartans against Aviation Athletic, based at Armstrong-Whitworth’s aeroplane assembly factory in Gosforth.
In nine friendly games leading up to the clash with Aviation Athletic, Bella had already scored a whopping 26 goals. However, the best was still to come. Bella netted twice as Spartans ran out 4-2 victors against Athletic, and a further six times in the following round against the North East Marine Munitionettes in a game played at St James’ Park. Her rich vein of form continued away from the Munitionettes’ Cup, bagging six against Sunderland Ladies in an encounter witnessed by 5,000 at Croft Park, and seven more in an 8-0 rout of Morpeth Post Girls.
In the Munitionettes’ Cup semi-final, Spartans edged out Armstrong-Whitworth’s 57 Shop 2-1 at St James’ Park in front of 10,000 spectators, setting up a final against Bolckow – representing Bolckow, Vaughan & Co. of South Bank, based on Teesside.
The two sides met at St James’ Park on March 30th, but played out an uneventful 0-0 draw, meaning that a replay would decide the destiny of the solid silver trophy that had been donated as a prize. After a lengthy organisation process, on May 18th, in front of 22,000 spectators at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, Spartans produced a sublime performance to emerge 5-0 winners, with Bella scoring three. As they were formally presented with the cup back in Blyth at the end of the month, it was announced that the ladies had raised over £2,000 for charity over the course of the campaign.
For Bella, though, there was still the small matter of donning an England shirt before the season was out. On July 20th, she was selected to wear the white jersey against a Scottish representative side at St James’ Park. England won 3-2, but surprisingly Bella failed to score.
It seems likely that big things were expected of Blyth Spartans Ladies’ FC ahead of the 1918-19 campaign, but, as local historian Patrick Brennan notes in his terrific book The Munitionettes: A history of women’s football in North East England during the Great War, for whatever reason, it was not to be. Suddenly, and without a clear explanation, the side disbanded. One possible reason was the loss of a common centre of employment – by October 1918, the Allies had all but won the war, and the need for munitions was on the wane. Brennan suggested that the nature of the work carried out by the Spartans ladies could have meant that theirs were among the first jobs to go. In 1921, the FA banned women from playing the sport, arguing that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.
However, as Yvonne says, following the dissolution of the Spartans ladies, Bella no longer had the time to devote herself to the game.
“She got married in 1920, and really, she stopped playing after that. But, had the FA not stopped it all, I think she would have started playing again. I don’t think she liked the ban very much, but what could she do?”
Asked as to what her grandmother might think of the modern game, Yvonne thinks that she might be quite taken aback by the development of ladies’ football – if not the sport as a whole.
“I think she would get a real shock looking at some of the money involved now, bearing in mind she did everything for nothing! It’s only really in the past few years that ladies’ football has took off. She’d probably have been a good professional now. And she could have made thousands – if she wanted to. She always knew that she was a good player – when we were younger, she used to love telling us about her time playing football, but she would tell us, ‘I was good, but I knew I was good!'”
Bella Reay went on to have two children, and three grandchildren. She remained in Blyth her entire life, living until the age of 79. During World War II, she worked in Blyth Shipyard. After closure of the Shipyard, she went on to assist a local farmer.
“There, she used to work on the fields”, recalled Yvonne. “You name it – she did it: threshing, haymaking, everything. And she did that well into her 60s. So she worked hard all of her life. But she was also a super grandma, and she really looked after her family.”
Bella’s exploits at Blyth Spartans never have been forgotten, with numerous references in the Newcastle Chronicle down the years, and of course, the publication of Patrick Brennan’s book in 2007. Regardless, Bella, and the Munitionettes, will always reside in the steeped history of the club.